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Helena to postpone some public works projects over funding issue

Posted at 10:58 PM, Apr 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-30 00:58:56-04

Helena leaders say that they will have to delay some planned public works projects in the coming year, in order to account for lower than expected fund balances.

The Helena City Commission discussed the issue Wednesday afternoon at an administrative meeting, held over videoconference.

Chris Couey, a city budget analyst, said the city had been expected to take out additional loans totaling nearly $18 million over the last two fiscal years. Because they did not secure that financing, he said the city’s water, stormwater, wastewater and streets funds were depleted.

Leaders say the issue arose because of “staff turnover and department reorganization.” Helena’s public works and finance directors both left their positions last year, and the Public Works Department was split into two departments – Public Works and Transportation Systems.

“There weren’t a lot of controls in place to make sure that the right people were informed at the right time to get these loans initiated,” Couey said.

Couey said they looked at the possibility of still trying to secure some of the loans they had been planning on, but that it would have been too great a risk. He said, if they didn’t manage to get the financing, the funds could have slipped into negative balances.

Instead, department heads worked together to determine which projects could be delayed. Couey said they prioritized projects linked to public safety and urgent infrastructure needs, and to commission priorities. Some of the delayed work includes water, stormwater and sewer line upgrades, equipment purchases and improvements at the Tenmile and Missouri River Water Treatment Plants.

Couey said the city is working on guidelines to keep this type of issue from happening again. He said one of the keys will be making sure more people are involved with the loan process.

“There was a fair amount of compartmentalization when it came to the budget in the past,” he said.

Commissioners and interim City Manager Melinda Reed thanked city staff for their work to resolve the issue, and for seeking to prevent it from reoccurring.

“This is something that really, we cannot afford to have happen again,” said Commissioner Emily Dean.